The biggest problem facing Myanmar (Burma) today is not its lack of democracy, but its lack of peace. Since World War II, the country has experienced almost continuous conflict, with more sustained and diverse ethnic insurgencies than any other place in the world. This history has had devastating consequences for its politics, economy, and infrastructure. Introducing a set of policies that ends the insurgencies is a prerequisite for advancing democracy and development.
There are a number of things that differentiates Myanmar and its 60 million people from its far more successful Southeast Asian neighbors—and explain why its history is so different from theirs.
First, it is more ethnically diverse (with the exception of Indonesia). About 40% of the population is composed of hundreds of ethnic minorities. Seven are especially important: the Arakan, Chin, Kachin, Karenni, Karen, Mon and the Shan. Complicating matters, the minority areas are anything but homogenous, having many smaller groups within them.
Second, the state has a more problematic topography, making the establishment of a common identity and strong national institutions harder.
Like other mountainous zones (such as in the Caucasus), the topography allows an uncommon diversity to flourish; languages, ethnicities, and customs differ across the country, and sometimes even across short distances. Minorities have used the terrain to protect their separate identities against more powerful states for centuries. Some would like to set up their own homelands. Others may prefer being ungoverned in a stateless environment to whatever benefits a formal state might bring.
The government has never been able to effectively project authority across distance given its weakness and the terrain. It makes a military solution to the myriad conflicts more difficult and an accommodation with various ethnic groups essential if Myanmar is ever to progress.
Third, whereas other Southeast Asia states have generally tried to forge a modus operandi with their most important minorities (often Chinese), Burmese leaders have often acted in ways that excluded theirs. This was most apparent in the treatment of Indians, who once played a crucial role in the country’s economy. Resented for decades, hundreds of thousands were expelled starting in 1964 despite having lived in the country for generations. A similar attitude can be seen in how the mainly Burmese central authorities, which are based in the ethnically Burmese Irrawaddy River Valley, have dealt with the country’s minorities. The result has been the myriad long-lasting ethnic insurgencies; as many as 20 or more different groups have operated at one time.
Fourth, the country has already experienced quite a number of failed attempts at state building. Since the last years of the Konbaung Dynasty, Myanmar’s rulers have repeatedly sought to construct a new institutional order to govern the country without success. Today the state contains just two strong organizations—the military and religious groups. Democratization is unlikely to succeed without a stronger institutional base to protect the process and ensure it is inclusive.
Lastly, the military has dominated politics and the economy for decades (it took over for good in 1962). It initially rose to power in the years after independence because the central government turned to it for help when it faced two communist and many ethnic insurgencies. The military was the only way to save the country. A long period of peace is necessary if civilians are to alter this equation. However, given its relative institutional strength (and need to be placated), the military will need to play an important role in any transition.
The Burmese civil war is the longest-running armed conflict in the world and has continued, in one form or another, from independence to the present day. In a way Burma is a place where the Second World War never really stopped. Ever since the first Japanese bombers hummed overhead . . . the gun has never been taken away from Burmese politics. And no government has governed the entirety of Burma since 1941. Elections have never been held across the entire country, and no government has been able to conduct a proper census. Few border regions are even today free of rebel control. There has not been a succession of wars; rather the same war, the same rhetoric, and sometimes even the same old rifles have staggered on and on, with only minor changes to the cast and plot and a few new special effects. . . . Perhaps a million dead, millions more displaced, an economy in ruins, and a robust military machine designed to fight the enemy within have been the main stuff of Burma’s post-independence history.
Such circumstances explain why Myanmar is the least developed country in Southeast Asia. Almost unique in the region, it has turned its back on the dynamic economic forces reshaping the globe, leaving its people impoverished and its economy decades behind everyone else.
Recent changes suggest the country may be at a turning point. Opposition leaders have been released, relatively free elections have been held (in which the opposition won handily), and prominent foreign diplomats have visited. The government has made an effort to settle the insurgencies, signing peace agreements with 12 different ethnic groups. But unless the transition is phased in over many years in a way that allows the process to become increasingly inclusive (including a system of federalism that awards generous power to the ethnic minorities) and built around an institutionalized state, it will remain a deeply risky endeavor, prone to reversal.